The Common University Entrance Test for admission to undergraduate programmes in Central universities was launched with the intention of offering a level playing to students but its implementation in its debut year has left a lot to be desired. The test, conducted by the National Testing Agency, has encountered several glitches as had JEE and NEET, the other two exams conducted by the NTA. The first phase of CUET-UG, the second largest admission test conducted in the country, was held between July 15 and 20, while the second phase started on August 4. On July 15, a late-night change in centres resulted in hundreds of students missing the exam. The second phase of CUET-UG also got off to an unfortunate start with technical glitches and administrative issues forcing the NTA to cancel the second shift exam across all 489 centres and postpone the first shift at some locations in 17 states. Harried students and parents are understandably irate and have described the process as a complete mess. The problems faced by JEE and NEET aspirants, too, have raised serious questions about the competence of the NTA in conducting nationwide examinations of such significance.
CUET has run into controversy ever since it was announced by the University Grants Commission in March this year that it would be the determining factor for undergraduate admissions, and school-leaving exams will no longer have weightage. CUET was proposed in order to halt the trend of skyrocketing cut-offs at various universities, especially Delhi University, for admission to undergraduate courses where the school-leaving exam marks were the only criterion. However, educationists apprehend that given the massive scale of the CUET exercise, objective type exam or multiple choice questions (MCQ) will be the only acceptable format. As a result, language skills, analytical reasoning and logical thesis will not be tested. CUET will be especially problematic where arts and social sciences are concerned because there is no room for subjectivity in this form of testing. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (ICSE) and various state boards at present conduct the school-leaving exams. Their curriculums vary and one standard method of testing students for admission to undergraduate courses will no doubt prove disadvantageous to some. Consequently, this may see a mushrooming of CUET coaching centres charging exorbitant fees. While the government’s move is in tune with its bid to restructure higher education as per the guidelines of the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP), the over-centralisation may well prove detrimental to students. It is ironic that the NEP aims at promoting more thinking and analysis in schools but the introduction of CUET will nullify that as there will be a tendency to take the school-leaving exams lightly and focus on the admission test instead. The usual paraphernalia of coaching centres, model exams and mock papers will give a fillip to rote learning, and well thought-out pedagogical methods will be given the go-by, affecting the educational development of students. States have also raised the issue of CUET being a blow to federalism, with the Tamil Nadu Assembly passing a resolution against its introduction as it would prove disadvantageous to students of state boards.
The pandemic has seriously disrupted academic activities, with studies showing an alarming decline in the learning abilities of schoolchildren. It was perhaps not prudent to introduce the new testing format this year, however noble the intentions. College admissions have been delayed in the last two years and the glitches in CUET-UG will further postpone them as the test is yet to be completed. Evaluation will take more time, and students can realistically expect the academic session to begin only towards the end of the year. This delay may well prompt many to join private universities and institutions, giving privatisation of education a boost. The UGC would have been well advised to postpone CUET by at least a year so that higher educational institutions, which have seen delays and disruptions in the last two years, got back to their normal academic schedules. Now students are at the receiving end, having suffered the effects of the pandemic in their final years in school and facing an uncertain future as their journey in higher education begins. There is no clarity on what happens to students who do not get through CUET. As the results are likely to be delayed, there is all likelihood that they will have to sit out a year as options are limited in a country where aspirants far outnumber the number of educational institutes. It is only reasonable to expect those at the helm of affairs to keep the best interests of students in mind. Reform and experimentation are important but not at the cost of a generation that is on the threshold of adulthood and has many dreams to fulfil.